Saturday, January 20, 2007

"I despise toadies who suck up to their bosses; they are generally the same people who bully their subordinates," - David Ogilvy

Today I recieved an sms from a young man who asked me why I had made a point that I felt that I could judge a man's character by the way he treated my friend, Zen, the world's chubbiest hooker. That sms reminded me of something David Oilvy had said back in the 1950s when he was starting what would become Ogilvy&Mather, one of the world's largest advertising firms.

He said that he, " despise[d] toadies who suck up to their bosses; they are generally the same people who bully their subordinates." Ogilvy and his Ogilvyisms as always have a way of being about more than just advertising - his sayings have proved to be very accurate in making certain points about life in general.

Like it or not, most of us are actors on a stage. Everyday we encounter different people and we act towards those different people in different ways. When I speak to my aunt at home, I play the role of a good nephew. When I'm with my friends, I am a friend. When I am with my clients I act as a concerned consultant and so on. However, I believe that although we can play different roles in a single day, at the end of the day, we have underlying personal characteristics and moral values that affect the way we play-out our varoius roles. The role of a good nephew that I play is different from the role that someone else with a different character would play if he or she were in my position.

Unfortunately, most of us are carried away by the roles that we play. More importantly, we get carried away with the roles that other people play when they are arround us. It's especially fun and one can easily get carried away in character roles when you are the person who that everyone else needs. If you are the boss, your subordinates will always be nice to you are the boss. If you are the teacher, the students will always be nice to the teacher. This getting carried away with role playing gets even more intense and interesting when you have a slight edge over the other guy but are not in an obviously supperior position. Take two colleagues are vying for the same promotion and one of them is rumoured to be the bosses favourite. Trust you me - the one who is not the rumoured favourite will start cozying up to the rumoured favourite in order to sieze the inside edge.

Being the centre of attention is alot of fun. We forget that the other person may have an ulterior motive for being nice. So, what's the best way to find out if he or she is an honest person.

The answer is to see how he or she treats the less fortunate. I've generally  found that genuinely rich and influential people are able to treat people from all walks of life in a similar manner. I've found that those who start becomming contemptuous of people of a lower social strata are usually the low-level bureaucrats with very little going for them other than their title.

One army sergant-major I knew said it best - "I call you Sir means I respect you. If I call you lieutenant so and so, it means I respect your rank." - It's important to know who are the leaders that can command respect - the officers you can call Sir - these are the people you should be around - these are the people who bring you up both in the professional and personal sphere. The leaders who don't command your respect - ie those who you call lieutant so and so, are those that you deal with only as long as its necessary and then keep them at an arms length - they'll only bring you down.

More importantly, its important to know how your contemporaries and subordinates in life look at you. Are you the type of person whom people call Sir or the type of person whom people call by their rank? If you are carried away with your own power and status, just observe how people treat those who are close to you but in their eyes - a social subordinate - when your back is turned.

Zen is in a position that is as lowly as social status as people can get. She is a mere prostitute and an ugly one at that. Her manners often leave much to be desired. Yet, she does no one any harm and instead of asking the government for a hand-out - she's actually making her own money by selling a product in the open market. So, given that she's a "low-life," its interesting to see how people react to her.

The most obvious example of a person who showed himself up to be a low-life was a salesman for Karcher, the cleaning equiment manufacturer. This was a character who could not resist sitting in a way that his "Gold Lolex" (FAKE) would be obvoius to all and would never buy drinks (tea-O- for UK readers, this is tea without milk - cost 20p in Pound Sterling) for people but expected them to buy him - and his entourage (somehow he had the knack of finding one whenever you were buying). I've since limited my exposure to this person.

People who "Look Down" on people for their profession are usually unintelligent cowards who have never done an honest days work in their life. Given a choice between a "Low-Life" like Zen and a "White Horse Wanna Be" who can't tie his own shoe laces, I'd go for the "Low-Life" even if the "Whie Horse Wanna Be" is the son of the Prime Minister.

Sad to say,  I used to be one of those people. I remember that when I came back from the UK and was waiting for National Service, I worked as a crew member for my Dad on one of his shoots. If memory serves me correctly, I was a little resentful and I was enlisted to work for the old man. I thought that I was an A-level student and that made me something special.

I'm not perfect but a few years of scrapping by on odd jobs has helped me to alter my perspective. Couldn't do well in office jobs so I ended up having to do things like give massages at fairs, sell antiques at roadside fairs and God Almighty, I was actually a tele-marketeer. I didn't have the luxury of worrying - "What would my family members think?!" Or "How could I stoop SO LOW and do this or that." I needed the money and those little dinky things allowed me to get money. My father-in-law didn't give me hassle for making him and his daughter "Lose Face" for doing these jobs - he said in his rather broken English - "Young Man, good - got work to do - do it."    

 These experiences were things I should have had much earlier on in life. I think I would have been a much better person for it. Short of robbery and murder, work is not a lowly thing, particularly when it means you are doing it to survive and learn something from the experience. 

Look at the debate on prostitution in Singapore. The people who complain about the prostitutes are either men who don't have the courage to be honest about their own sexual cravings or women who are too lazy and self-absorbed to realise that having a man in their life is not a God-given right. Instead of facing up to their own sexual short-commings, they blame prostitutes from China, Vietnam and other poorer parts of Asia behind the veil of self-declared moral sanctity - "Oh God, we can't have that here - we're Singaporeans, nice educated people who don't feel like normal humans do.Or worse - we have entitlements, we're educated and these things are too lowly for us.

Just as Ogilvy dispised toadies, I actually dispise "moral"  people for they are often the most "immoral" of the lot. I remember being in the army - the most "Christian" and "Educated" people who would go through the ritual of "Praying" for "SOC," "IPPT" and the usual group of acronyms that we had in the army, were usually the first to grab the porno-magazines and lead the rush to the Red Light District. - The Hokkien Soldiers on the other hand only bragged about going to Geylang but made loyal boyfriends and would be actually behave decently when out on an overseas excercise.

It was of course different amongst the regular and senior officers. I had the privillege of working with Colonel (NS) Michael Lim Teck Huat, former Chief of Artillery after National Service. Col Lim had what I call "Real" faith. He did things that he believed was in people's best interest. This was the only full colonel I've heard of who would offer lance corporals a lift (in his MINDEF plated car). I also learnt that his office during his tennure as a Chief of Artillery was alot more humble than what he was entitled to as a Service Chief in the Army.

We met over the tragedy of "Excercise Swift Lion." He had tried to explain the safety messages MINDEF had taken in the aftermath of the disaster. It was a tough job and we weren't having any of it. He stayed and listened to our concerns in such a way that went beyond that of a professional councilor doing a job.

I left the army and we ended up trading Christmas cards once a year. He would always sign off "Michael" rather than "LTC" or "COL" Lim. We met again after four years. I was in Khatib Camp on Remedial Training and he drove by in his MID plated car. He saw me and got of his car. I think this was one of the most enduring gestures a man in his position could do for me - he was a full colonel, in an army camp. I am a lowly third sergeant. Yet he was willing to get out of his car to greet me. Saluting an officer in the SAF had never been that easy.

He's now a Vice-Principle in the school system. Many have said that this was a "demotion" - the man should have been a Director in the Ministry of Education. But he loves his new role, he likes being close to the students and making a difference to young lives - he's not bothered by the fact that he was once a "Big-shot" elsewhere. To my mind, the fact that he's not worried about taking an "Obvious Demotion" and more interested in making a difference.

Give me a choice of following a man like this into a battle field or a Self-Serving Bully/ White Horse/ Bureaucrat who can only function in a path mapped out for him/ political favourite, I would chose the former.  

Being self-employed is a little akin to being a prostitute. You  get #$)(* for a living. However, like a prostitute, survival is dependent on being able to recognise people for what they are rather than who they are. A big but dishonest client is worse than a small but honest client.

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